The Band Wagon
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After the success of musicals built around the songs of George and Ira Gershwin (An American in Paris) and his own songs written with Nacio Herb Brown (Singin' in the Rain), producer Arthur Freed next turned to the songs of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz as the basis for a new musical. The pair were famous for writing some of Broadway's greatest revues of the early 1930's, including 1931's The Band Wagon that would lend its title and many of its songs to Freed's new concoction.
Both the theater and film versions of The Band Wagon would share the same star, Fred Astaire, but in much different roles. For the movie, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On The Town, 1949 and Singin' in the Rain, 1952) created a character not far removed from the real Fred Astaire in Tony Hunter, a former Broadway hoofer who has found his fame declining after years in Hollywood. "We were very nervous in the beginning about Fred's character," said Comden, "because it was based in so many ways on his actual position in life." Astaire, however, found the part delightfully written and agreed to lampoon his own image.
Reality provided the inspiration for other roles. Comden and Green inserted caricatures of themselves into the story as the bickering playwrights portrayed by Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray. Jose Ferrer, who had recently staged several Broadway shows simultaneously, was the basis for pretentious director Jeffrey Cordova. Freed's first choice to play Cordova was Clifton Webb who turned down the role as too minor but suggested instead Jack Buchanan, considered Britain's answer to Fred Astaire. Cyd Charisse, a sensation in the Broadway Melody number in Singin' In The Rain, graduated here to leading actress to complete the cast.
Eighteen Dietz/Schwartz tunes from their past productions were chosen for The Band Wagon but Freed felt something was missing and went to the songwriters for a new addition. "In the script this director, Buchanan, is saying that practically anything you can do will work if it's entertaining. I want a 'There's No Business Like Show Business,'" Freed told the pair. Forty-five minutes later they returned with The Band Wagon's most famous number, "That's Entertainment."
"The show must go on" would have been a more appropriate motto for the shoot. Astaire's wife was seriously ill during the film's production, Jack Buchanan had to work his scenes around painful dental operations and Oscar Levant had his usual hypochondria increased by having an actual heart attack shortly before filming. One particularly difficult number was "Triplets." It required Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan to dance on their knees. Fabray later said, "it was just a long day of pain, terror and anxiety."
The musical's biggest number was, thankfully, much easier on the dancers. Associate producer Roger Edens saw a Life magazine article on hard-boiled detective writer Mickey Spillane and decided to spoof it with "The Girl Hunt" ballet. Michael Kidd, star choreographer of Broadway's Guys and Dolls, was brought in to bring some of that show's lowlife flair to the piece. Kidd was scared to show Astaire the muscular moves he had planned for the ballet, knowing it was so alien to the elegant Astaire style. To his surprise, Astaire loved it and later called it one of his favorite film dances.
Upon release, The Band Wagon became both a critical and commercial hit. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times called it "one of the best musicals ever made."
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay: Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Art Direction: E. Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Harry Jackson
Costume Design: Mary Ann Nyberg
Film Editing: Albert Akst
Original Music: Adolph Deutsch
Principal Cast: Fred Astaire (Tony), Cyd Charisse (Gaby), Oscar Levant (Lester), Nanette Fabray (Lily), Jack Buchanan (Jeffrey), James Mitchell (Paul Byrd), Robert Gist (Hal Benton).
C-113m. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady